Pompeii collapse increases pressure on Berlusconi


ARCHAEOLOGISTS AND environmentalists yesterday suggested that the collapse on Saturday morning of the House of Gladiators in Pompeii sounded an alarm bell about Italy’s ability to adequately protect its huge archeological heritage.

Furthermore, opposition politicians called for the resignation of arts minister, Sandro Bondi whilst state president Giorgio Napolitano called for an “immediate and honest” explanation, saying that the collapse represented a matter of “shame for Italy”.

The combination of recent heavy rain, a recent roof restoration and a chronic lack of routine maintenance would all appear to have contributed to the collapse of the House of Gladiators, known as the Schola Armaturarum and used by gladiators for training before fights in the nearby amphitheatre. Situated on the Via d’Abbondanza, the House of Gladiators was not open to the two million tourists who annually visit Pompeii, the Roman city near Naples, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 but rediscovered by archeologists in the mid-18th century.

Personnel at Pompeii yesterday said it was fortunate that the collapse came in the early hours of Saturday morning when the site was closed to the public. Otherwise, passing tourists on the Via d’Abbondanza might well have been killed and/or injured by the collapse of the entire 40-foot wide building.

Unsurprisingly, the collapse has prompted bitter criticism of the Silvio Berlusconi-led centre-right government. Environmentalist lobby, Italia Nostra, expressed outrage at a statement made by the secretary general of the Arts Ministry, Roberto Cecchi, who said that routine maintenance on the Schola Armaturarum had not been carried out “for more than half a century”: “If that is the case, then the (Arts) Ministry should close down.

“Unfortunately, for us, there is nothing new about the grave situation in which our cultural patrimony currently finds itself”, said Alessandro Molfino of Italia Nostra. Democratic Party (PD) deputy Luisa Bossa, who last June tabled a parliamentary question about potentially damaging restoration work done this summer on the Teatro Grande at Pompeii, said yesterday: “I’ve been sounding the alarm about Pompeii for months. This very serious collapse is proof that the government and Minister Bondi have underestimated the problem and talked a whole load of rubbish . . . At the site this summer, there were bulldozers, diggers, cement mixers and pneumatic drills. Not even the slightest regulations for the stability of the archaeological site were respected . . .”

Deputy Bossa argues that commercial considerations have prevailed over the correct administration of the Pompeii site in recent years. Last August, state prosecutors from nearby Torre Annunziata, following a formal complaint by the UIL trade union, began an investigation into precisely how €40 million made available for the maintenance of Pompeii has been used. Investigators suspect that the Neapolitan Mafia, the camorra, may have infiltrated the restoration work. Many commentators suggest that the Pompeii collapse sounds the alarm for Italy’s entire cultural patrimony, pointing out that a July 2008 budget cut of €1.2 billion to the arts ministry budget has done untold damage: “In Italy people think that archeological treasures are natural things, like rocks or plants. People think that we have enough of them and so we don’t have to worry about them. So when you have a collapse like this, well it is more the English and German tourists who get upset than our fellow citizens”, said art critic, Achille Bonito Oliva.

Meanwhile, yet another difficult weekend for the Berlusconi government got worse yesterday when his long-time ally, speaker of the lower house Gianfranco Fini, called on prime minister Berlusconi to resign as a preamble to the formulation of a new government programme. Speaking to a rally of his newly formed Future and Freedom (FLI) party in Perugia yesterday, Mr Fini, who formally broke with Mr Berlusconi in July, was highly critical of what he called “the most backward government in Europe”.

Mr Fini said that he was pained by the “unworthy image of Italy” that the Berlusconi government offered, adding that unless the prime minister resigned, the four FLI members of government would resign, thus formally prompting a government crisis, if not collapse. The prime minister reportedly told his closest advisors that he had no intention of resigning.